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New Air Force One Debuts in Pentagon Planning

Apr. 10, 2012 - 09:14PM   |  
By MARCUS WEISGERBER   |   Comments
Air Force One sits on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. A replacement of the long-serving Boeing 747 is in the Pentagon's latest version of its aviation plans.
Air Force One sits on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. A replacement of the long-serving Boeing 747 is in the Pentagon's latest version of its aviation plans. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)
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A new Air Force One presidential transport has appeared in the latest version of the Pentagon’s aviation plans, marking the first time the Pentagon has included a replacement for the long-serving Boeing 747 jet transport.

Installation of new, sensitive communications equipment could begin on the aircraft as soon as 2019, according to the Pentagon.

The plans don’t specify a specific aircraft model, but it could be an updated executive version of the 747, known in military service as the VC-25.

Inclusion of the presidential transport “is significant,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “It doesn’t happen very often and there are some enabling new technologies.”

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said last year the service would need to look at replacing its two VC-25s later this decade.

“We have recognized for several years now that the Air Force One replacement is out there in our future in the late teens,” Donley said during a Sept. 19, 2011, briefing at an Air Force Association conference.

The two aircraft that serve as Air Force One began flying in 1990 and 1991, respectively, according to a service fact sheet.

Current and former military sources have said power demands are straining the two quad-engine jetliners due to the aircraft’s extensive communications equipment and other systems. Newer Boeing aircraft feature engines with thousands of pounds of more thrust than those on the current Air Force One aircraft.

The inclusion of a VC-25 replacement in the aviation plan comes at an interesting time, since recapitalization of Air Force One is typically directed by a president in a second term.

George W. Bush’s administration had tried to get the ball rolling on Air Force One and Marine One helicopter recapitalization before the end of his second term in the White House.

Barack Obama is up for re-election in November and, particularly during recent government bailouts of shaky corporations, has been highly critical of executive use of corporate jets.

Shortly after Obama took office in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the helicopter effort following a severe spike in costs attributed to the piling on of White House-mandated requirements.

The Marine One replacement effort has been restarted through a program called V-XX, but is not supposed to begin operating until 2023, according to the 30-year aviation plan.

Following Obama’s harsh corporate jets comments, the Air Force put the VC-25 recapitalization plan on hiatus, with internal plans of replacing the current aircraft later this decade, according to the current and former military sources.

Since then, the service has been conducting low-level research and development of Air Force One-type systems, without identifying a specific airframe, these sources said.

Boeing has expressed interest in pitching its new, larger 747-8 as an Air Force One replacement. In September 2011, EADS North America said a VC-25 replacement did not fit its U.S. business model.

Since Boeing will likely be the only bidder in the competition, the Air Force has considered requesting bids for the integration work of sophisticated communications equipment.

The rest of the plan

In addition, the Air Force plans to revive plans to build a new jet trainer later in the coming years with a goal of having the aircraft operational by 2020.

The program, called T-X, was crowded out of the Defense Department’s 2013 budget proposal by higher priority programs, however Air Force leadership have stressed the need to fund the aircraft, which would replace the 1960s-era Northrop T-38.

“This is an issue of resources,” Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Feb. 28 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “You know, we need a new trainer. As you’re well aware, the T-38 is older than I am, almost. And we need a new trainer. But the bottom line is that we simply did not have space to pursue that in the current budget environment.”

Production of the new jet trainer is now “envisioned to begin” in 2018 with initial operational capability eyed for 2020, according to the plan.

Alenia Aermacchi, Lockheed Martin and Boeing have all expressed interest in competing for the T-X contract.

In addition to the T-X program, the document states aviation policy goals for 30 years, but only projects aircraft buys over a 10-year period.

The plan — which DoD prepares for Congress annually and was first reported by Bloomberg — shows some declines in purchasing over the next 10 years, a period when DoD plans to chop $487 billion from planned spending.

Last year’s aircraft plan, stated a goal of operating 650 multirole, unmanned intelligence aircraft. This year’s plan show a total of 645 UAVs in 2022.

As for the Air Force’s new tanker, the Boeing KC-46A, the service had planned to operate 124 of them by 2021 in last year’s plan. Now they only plan to procure 83 by 2022.

Aside from a decline in planned spending, another factor in tanker procurement decline could be that the service had just selected a contractor for the aerial refueling aircraft when last year’s plan was constructed an a development plan for the plane had not been finalized.

The plan notes the Air Force’s new long-range bomber could be operational by the mid 2020s.

The 36-page document includes a discussion of far more types of aircraft than previous versions, including helicopters, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare planes and special operations aircraft.

Between 2013 and 2022, the overall aircraft inventory will grow slightly from 14,340 planes to 14,415 planes. Over that period, aviation funding totals about $770 billion.

The plan, for the first time, notes the emergence of a Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor replacement, dubbed F-X. The Pentagon plans to start spending money on development of this sixth-generation aircraft Air Force aircraft toward the end of the decade.

The Navy’s sixth-generation FA-XX — a replacement for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet — is also listed in the plan.

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